If you've followed me for a while, you'll know that we installed an incredible Ethernet based SAN back in December of 2008. It's the Final Share SAN system from Maxx Digital which features some ethernet wizardry from the folks at Small Tree Electronics. We've been pushing the heck out of this system with two feature documentaries with over 350 hours of material and a couple of weekly series along with a myriad of projects pushing through the pipeline. It's been a real workhorse for the shop.
So I get a call a few months ago that the gang at Small Tree is working on "something new" and would I like to try it out? You don't have to ask me twice. Our current SAN essentially runs in three parts. You have the Mac Pro that is the central conduit. The RAID units attach to the Mac Pro, in our case these are two 16TB Maxx Digital units connected via SAS and are both running RAID 5. Then you have the ethernet switch where both the Mac Pro and all the clients connect together allowing all the data to be shared across the network. The client is whatever machine you want to connect to the SAN. Mac Pro, iMac, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, etc... Anything with an Ethernet port can be connected to the SAN in a matter of minutes to either edit video or simply access the data.
This new idea from Small Tree is essentially an ethernet SAN in a box primarily designed for remote applications, but I see it as a great tool for post houses too. The computer and RAID are combined into a single box and 6 clients can connect directly to the box and start working. That's it. If you need more than 6 clients, then simply add an Ethernet Switch off you go. The box they sent me has sixteen 2TB drives so we have a 32TB SAN running in RAID 5. In our case, since we already have all our computers set up on an ethernet switch, we ran the box through the switch to make it easier. As a side benefit to connecting through the switch, we can access all 64TB of our shared storage at the same time. The 32TB from the original SAN and the 32TB from the new SAN since it all passes through the same switch.
I say they primarily designed this for remote applications, such as live events or film sets, to make it extremely easy to network across multiple workstations without the need for Fibre Channel setups, network configurations, etc... Anything with an ethernet connection can easily edit using Apple's ProRes codec, for example, and you can have 6 editors up and running in a matter of minutes without the need for a "network specialist." If you can connect your computer to the internet you have the necessary skills to connect your computer to this SAN. It's not rocket science.
But in my case, I see this as a real space and equipment saver in our Post House. We have all our equipment rack mounted including the computers and such. (you can see an image of our machine room here: http://tinyurl.com/34h8pdr
By removing the Mac Pro from the SAN, that means we can now use that computer for another purpose and clear some room in our Rack. I can make that Mac Pro more productive for the shop rather than just sitting there playing "traffic cop" for the SAN. It's a win-win.
It's called the ST-RAID Mobile and is expected to be released in October 2010. In the early testing everything is moving right along. Took all of about 5 minutes to connect it and get running with it. It truly is a "SAN in a box." More details as they become available.
As we have discovered with worsening problems over the past 6 months, Apple has a very serious problem with their latest Mac Pro machines running the Intel "hartwell" chip on the ethernet ports. With bi-directional traffic to / from our ethernet based SAN, we can predict that our latest Mac Pro, the 2.93 Nehelam quad core machine, will disconnect from our SAN 8 times out of 10. The problem has been worsening and so far Apple has zero answers to the problem. Even Snow Leopard does not address this issue.
If you have any machine prior to the 2.93 Quad Core machine, you should be ok. We have three other Macs that all run on the SAN with no issues. It's only this machine and I have been told the problem is being repeated on other Mac Pros with this same "Hartwell" chip.
So if you're a heavy user of ethernet networking and especially looking at / using ethernet based SAN like we do, check with your networking folks before you purchase any new Mac Pros. To say we're disappointed with Apple right now is an understatement. Pay $6,000 for a new machine and find out it won't perform to the same specs as 2 and 3 year old computers.
After several months of debugging, it looks like the newest and fastest Mac Pros have serious issues with the Final Share SAN system. For whatever reason, the Mac Pro keeps disconnecting itself from the SAN, usually at the end of a render, though it can happen when launching FCP, launching a project that uses the SAN or a myriad of other reasons.
It started out happening once in a while but it's at the point now where it has really put a crimp in our feature documentary and causing delays in deliveries to our client. Because it's so unstable, I'm actually going to move the entire project to a local SAN for the remainder of the project through completion.
All evidence points directly at Apple for causing the issues with something in the latest Mac Pros. Unfortunately I just can't wait any longer for a solution and will be looking to bring in another local 8TB RAID to complete the job. We'll decide at a later date whether to keep or replace the entire SAN system.
To paraphrase a famous author, "I have seen the future of shared storage and his name is Ethernet."
Last month we invested in the new Final Share
system from MaxxDigital
and after some tweaking, we now have 16TB of shared storage supported a high definition workflow with 6 workstations all running Apple's ProRes HQ in high definition, both 720p and 1080i. And actually it's not "workstations" in the traditional sense of the word, since we're running ethernet, we can connect any Mac computer to the array.
So in our case, we have three Final Cut Pro desktop workstations and three iMac's all connected. In our testing today we configured the three FCP workstations to capture approx. 3 hours of 720 and 1080i ProRes HQ material each. As that was happening, all three iMacs were playing back 20+ minute clips in Quicktime Player in a loop. After all the capturing, we had all three FCP workstations set up with 90 minute timeline playing in a loop while the iMacs kept playing their clips. We left it all alone for several hours and all way still playing. 6 streams of high definition from one storage array and all via simple ethernet cable!
We plan to use the iMacs both to allow Producers to review footage immediately upon capture and also for Assistant Editors working on upcoming series. Once the footage is in the system, anybody can access it at any time and since it's not Fibre Channel, I don't have to invest in top of the line desktop editing systems for the assists.
Watch for a full article on this system coming up shortly, but wow, this thing really works and it's really affordable!